Victoria Engelhorn: Becoming more than her family name

Victoria Engelhorn
A beneficiary of the sale of her family's multi-generational pharmaceutical companies, Victoria Engelhorn was determined to take the opportunity to grow, realise her own dreams and give back to society. In an exclusive interview with Campden FB, she reveals how forging her own socially responsible path gave her meaning and purpose.
By Glen Ferris

The granddaughter of billionaire German businessman Curt Engelhorn, great-great granddaughter of Friedrich Engelhorn (the founder of chemical giant BASF) and the beneficiary of a family-wide windfall, Victoria Engelhorn understands all too well the heft and privilege of inheriting great wealth.

For more than three and a half decades, Curt Engelhorn led the pharmaceutical companies Boehringer Mannheim and DePuy Inc. In 1997, having decided that the companies wouldn’t continue as a family-owned venture, he sold the two firms to Hoffmann-La Roche for more than $10 billion.

“My great-great-grandfather started BASF,” says Victoria. “Then my grandfather grew Boehringer Mannheim from a national pharmaceutical company into a multinational.

“My grandfather sold the business and decided that he wanted all the family members to have an opportunity to enjoy the inheritance, and, I guess, to show him that they are worthy of being able to look after a certain amount of money. So, he gave all his children enough money to sustain themselves, to create businesses, to create livelihoods and to be very happy for many generations to come. 

My father said, we need to give back and that led me to thinking about social enterprises.

This all came about when Victoria was just 19 years old and studying in the United States, a part of her extended education that, she says along with her family values, triggered a desire to invest consciously.

“One of the first things we discussed around the kitchen table was the Trust,” she says. “My father said, we need to give back and that led me to thinking about social enterprises and social investing.

“Growing up, money was never essential, important or even present in my life. I always saw my extended family as rich, but we were completely different. We lived a very ‘normal’ life and were detached from it all. But when we inherited the money, all of that changed.

The Zip-Zap Circus performing live in China

“I became very aware that I wasn't like all my other friends, there was a certain responsibility and I needed to figure out how to live with it.

“Even though I did not have much contact with my grandfather at an early age, he was an important figure in my life and somehow I always felt that I wanted to show him who I was.”

Having always thought of herself as a bit of an outsider and with the want to do some good with her opportunity, Victoria became a member of the Social Venture Network, a non-profit membership organisation which welcomes sustainability-inspired members – alumni include Anita Roddick (founder of The Body Shop) and Ben Cohen (of Ben & Jerry's ice cream).

I felt that to understand money, you need to work for it.

“With help from people I met there, we created a venture capital firm to invest into social enterprises,” says Victoria of the family VC business, focusing on grassroots business, she helped set up in 1998“I was the president of the company with my father when I was 21 years old. However, we went from social entrepreneurship to green technologies then to IT and now we are going back to touching on the original purpose and scaling with a difference by backing European scale-ups that make a positive difference.

“It got to a point where the investments didn't resonate with me anymore and, in 2001, I resigned. I was always watching the progress and going to essential meetings but not really engaging until three years ago where I felt it was going back to my values.

“For me, growing up was always about always wanting to work, but my father never allowed me to because he felt I would be taking a job away from somebody who needed it and that there was greater value in me doing volunteering work. However, I felt that to understand money, you need to work for it.”

Victoria has discovered that to make the most impactful social change, she has to step into the spotlight 

This aspiration to break out of the bubble and learn the value of things fuelled an educational journey that took Victoria around the world. Having completed most of her schooling in Switzerland, she finished in Oxford with an International Baccalaureate. She then completed a BS in economics and biochemistry at Duke University, North Carolina.

“[Before the sale], my mission was to study biochemistry and take over the business,” says Victoria. “That was my drive from a very early age. As I was studying biochemistry, my grandfather sold the business. So, I had to decide if biochemistry was what I wanted to continue to do or if I would change… I changed my major to Economics and French.

“I continued my studies and eventually took part in a leadership-in-the-arts programme in New York and then I went to Paris, mainly because I wanted to understand why everybody thought Paris was such a great city, as I hadn’t had the best experiences there and I also wanted to learn French. Seeing that I went with the semester-abroad programme from Duke, everybody was American and spoke English all the time. All I wanted to do was learn French, so I purposely chose a subject that wouldn’t have any English speakers in the class. That's why I ended up in Sub-Saharan African literature and ethology, because no English speakers wanted to learn about it!” 

I really needed to prove myself that there's more to me than my family wealth.

By 2003, now more fearlessly independent and determined to carve her own path than ever, Victoria opened Songololo Children, a Barcelona-based children’s shop concentrating on the sale of socially responsible and eco-friendly toys and clothing. This further fuelled a passion for championing for children’s rights around the world.

“Children are like sponges, they take in whatever you give them,” says Victoria. “They're the future at the end of the day. So, for me, putting effort into children is looking towards to the future. The shop was a tangible project that I could do to prove myself that I could do it.

“I really needed to prove to myself that there's more to me than my family wealth. The shop was really my first business based on something that I really believed in.”

In an attempt to embrace a more balanced and normal life, and perhaps to further discover her own great passions, Victoria and her family emigrated to South Africa in the early 2000s.

South Africa's Zip-Zap Circus had a profound effect on Victoria's approach to socially responsible investing

“For me, South Africa was this beautiful country with lots of opportunities,” she says. “Until then, we were living in Barcelona. Even though I tried to live a very normal life, after you buy an apartment in a nice area and you put kids into an international school, you're quickly surrounded by very well-to-do families…

“One of the most shocking moments to me was when my daughter was five and she was invited to a hair and make-up-themed birthday party – I really didn’t want my daughter to grow up thinking that's the essence of life. Things feel very real in South Africa, nobody looks at you to see if you're carrying a Prada handbag, nobody really cares.”

Not for the first time, Victoria refers to feeling like an outsider, originally growing up in a small  village in Switzerland, then bringing up a family in Barcelona. The move to a more anonymous life in South Africa gave her the chance to weigh up the important things in her life.

“For the first two years in South Africa, I just settled in with my family,” she says. “I had a one-month-old baby when I left Barcelona, I literally came out of hospital told my husband ‘Listen, we’re moving’ and a month later, we were in South Africa!

I felt I needed to become who I wanted to be before I could carry [the Engelhorn] name.

In addition to making a “more authentic” home for her family, the move came partially as an escape from the far-reaching influence of her family.

“The first thing I did when I got married was give up my name,” says Victoria. “It wasn't just for romantic reasons; it was more about not having to carry that name. I felt that I was judged because of that name. I felt I needed to become who I wanted to be before I could proudly carry my name and the heritage that came with it.

“Around 2012, I started mentioning to my former husband that I wanted to change my name back to Engelhorn, because that's when I felt like I had become who I wanted to be. I felt strong enough to carry my name again.”

This period of self-acceptance came after a protracted timeframe in which Victoria truly made her mark as a savvy business leader with an eye for the finer things her adopted home had to offer. In 2007, she founded a property company that owns the Heritage Square and took over the management of the Cape Heritage Hotel.

Victoria is the owner and director of the Cape Heritage Hotel

“Once I had established my own family, I realised very quickly that even though I now was living in South Africa, I was living again in a bubble of privilege – I wanted to get to know the people of this country I was now calling home. I never planned to run a hotel or open a restaurant, but then I was showed Heritage Square and I fell in love with it immediately. I really thought that was the place to do everything I always wanted to do. I had an immediate vision; it was about showing people what this amazing country has to offer and work with the different people of South Africa.”

Not only is Victoria the owner and director of Cape Heritage Hotel, the LOCAL multi-concept dining and retail space in Cape Town’s historic Riebeek Square and the director of Brugarol Wine And Olive and Brugarol X And Gothic restaurant in Barcelona – as well as a published author of her very own family-dedicated cookbook – but she continues to be a vocal advocate of social responsibility beyond her own business interests.

“I'm passionate about every project I do,” she says. “I don't do anything that doesn’t make me jump up and down with excitement basically.”

These children of all colours, sizes and abilities, all seem to connect in such a magical way! 

With this mantra firmly in mind, Victoria embarked on perhaps her most impactful project so far by becoming a vital part of the Zip-Zap Circus, a Cape Town-based social and professional circus dedicated to foster a “Culture of peaceful co-existence in South Africa, inspired by the late Nelson Mandela.”

“In 2007, I walked into my hotel in Cape Town and discovered there was a trustee meeting of the Zip-Zap Circus in one of our lounges,” she says. “So, I plumped myself outside of the door and waited for them to finish. When they came out, I said ‘Listen, I've been wanting to contact you. I want to know more about how I can help.’ So, the founders, who must have thought I was the maddest person on the planet because I was showing all this energy and passion for something I didn't know anything about, showed me how this amazing project came to life.

Fascinated by their shared dream to see the circus as a tool to bridge socio-economic gaps and to inspire and empower young people – “These children of all colours, sizes and abilities, all seem to connect in such a magical way!” – Victoria saw a way to put her education and privilege to great use.

 Victoria and the Zip-Zap Circus crew in action

When looking for a place to put a tent Zip-Zap was offered to buy, the perfect spot presented itself adjacent to Cape Town’s Opera House: “They needed ZAR700,000 to buy the tent and I had ZAR800,000 in my bank account in South Africa,” says Victoria. “So, I said to them, ‘Listen, I'll give you the money and you pay me back whenever you can – no interest.’”

Within six months, the circus had paid everything back and the tent has been in-situ hosting shows for 15 years – “That really put us on the map and allowed us to reach bigger crowds.”

With increased confidence in the project, Victoria became Zip-Zap’s chair in 2008 and oversaw the development of the Zip-Zap Academy in 2017.

“When I became the chair, it was about creating stability, we had to have a permanent structure, a permanent home. In 2017, we built the Zip-Zap Academy in a building in Salt River, just outside Cape Town,” she says. “We bought a piece of land and I convinced my family to invest.”

I grew up feeling like an outsider and seeing that unity of very different people was fascinating.

In addition to 11 outreach programmes, ranging from helping people living with HIV to working with young children living in shelters and an early childhood development project dedicated to youngsters from two Hout Bay townships, Zip-Zap Academy offers vocational training from the age of 16 onwards to teach young people to become performers, coordinators, teachers, musicians, technicians or any number of potential careers.

“For me, watching kids walk through the door and seeing them grow is such an amazing thing,” says Victoria. “There was one girl who, when I arrived, was 17. She is now a mother to two daughters with a solid job as a seamstress. This was a girl from the streets and now she's made a new life for herself and her family.

A devout believer in the impact of great hospitality, Victoria has successful ventures in South Africa and Spain

“Another boy lived on the streets for 18 years of his life, and he went on to perform for Barack Obama. He said to me, ‘Imagine, I was homeless, I battled with drugs and then I shook the hand of the most important person in the world!’

“I grew up feeling like an outsider and seeing that unity of very different people was fascinating. I think diversity is something that is enriching, and we don't quite understand the importance of it yet. They embody just how important it is to bring diverse people together in creating positive energy.

Further bolstered by her successes in social responsibility, in 2012, Victoria took on the chair of the Children’s Radio Foundation (a charity which trains youngsters across Africa as radio reporters), in 2017 she became CEO of her family farm in Spain and, in 2018, opened a health and movement centre in Cape Town.

Being the focus of attention is against my nature, but if I want to move things that’s where I need to be. 

Furthermore, in 2013, she was awarded the Inyathelo Award for philanthropy in youth development. It was, she says, a moment that truly marked becoming more than her family name.

“It was wonderful to be recognised for something that I felt really passionate about,” she says. “But it was a real challenge, I've never wanted to be in the spotlight. So, I continuously had to challenge that fear if I wanted to create change. Being the focus of attention is against my nature, but I understand that if I want to move things that’s where I need to be.

“My biggest boost came from my grandfather who came to visit in 2014. He saw one of the shows and met some of the young performers. He came to me with tears in his eyes and said: ‘I have given you, my blood, the opportunity to grow and realise your dreams. You have done the same for thousands of kids you don’t even know.’ This was when I knew that he truly saw me!”

Concept drawings for a new facade for the Zip-Zap Circus in Cape Town, South Africa

For social responsibility to truly flourish, Victoria firmly believes it must be adopted at all levels.

“My dad always said the greatest good you can do for society is to create a business. If you create jobs, you create empowerment for people,” she says. “The problem is that society has screwed up the concept of business so badly that now many businesses are not doing good anymore. Now it's not about creating jobs or creating a great product, it's about paying the shareholders.

“I think all businesses can be socially conscious and get beyond the need to make fortunes. Currently, we're in this hamster wheel of needing to create more and more wealth. But what are the billions for if they're not translating back into society?

“For me, it's about understanding how absolutely privileged, we are to be on this planet. If you look at everything that surrounds you as being exceptional, then nothing is ordinary anymore… Then how can you not be positive?

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